Early Opera: Some Perspectives

Early Opera: Some Perspectives

Among the flood of information from antiquity that characterized the intellectual climate of the Renaissance, was Aristotle's Poetics, which stated that tragedies were derived from choral dithyrambs and in performance led the audience to a purgation of emotions known as catharsis. At the turn of the 17th century, a number of Italian composers and performers began to look for a way to pass on this central experience of ancient Greek tragedy. A small group of educated men, known as the Florentine Camerata took it upon themselves to discover just what it was that caused the catharsis of the ancients and recreate it in the music they were composing. These early experiments would lead to the first operas.
Vincenzo Galilei the father of the famous scientist, was noted for his studies in Music and held a great influence over the Florentine Camerata. In his book, Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna of 1581, he chastises the current crop of madrigalists and proposes some ways in which they can seek to move their audience to, in Aristotle's words, a "purgation of pity and fear."

from Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna (1581)

Music was numbered by the ancients among the arts that are called liberal, that is, worthy of a free man, and among the Greeks its masters and discoverers, like those of almost all the other sciences, were always in great esteem. And by the best legislators it was decreed that it must be taught, not only as a lifelong delight but as useful to virtue, to those who were born to acquire perfection and human happiness, which is the object of the state. But in the course of time the Greeks lost the art of music and the other sciences as well, along with their dominion. The Romans had a knowledge of music, obtaining it from the Greeks, but they practiced chiefly that part appropriate to the theaters where tragedy and comedy were performed, without much prizing the part which is concerned with speculation; and being continually engaged in wars, they paid little attention even to the former part and thus easily forgot it. Later, after Italy had for a long period suffered great barbarian invasions, the light of every science was extinguished, and as if all men had been overcome by a heavy lethargy of ignorance, they lived without any desire for learning and took as little notice of music as of the western Indies. And they persisted in this blindness until first Gafurius and after him Glarean and later Zarlino [Renaissance music theorists] (truly the princes in this modern practice) began to investigate what music was and to seek to rescue it from the darkness in which it had been buried. That part which they understood and appreciated, they brought little by little to its present condition, but from what can be learned from countless passages in the ancient histories and in the poets and philosophers, it does not seem to any who are intelligent that they restored it to its ancient state, or that they attained to the true and perfect knowledge of it. This may have been owing to the rudeness of the times, the difficulty of the subject, and the scarcity of good interpreters. . . .

For this reason, . . . it has pleased me to publish some thoughts of mine on ancient music and that of our times, which until this day have been (in my opinion) little understood by any who have discussed them . . . . And now, since long continuous speaking, flowing on like a torrent, seems not to have the force and vigor in concluding sentences and arguments which dialogue has, I have judged it most to this purpose to treat my present discourses in that manner, and this I can easily believe to have been one of the potent causes that induced Plato to treat the subjects of divine philosophy in this way. I have accordingly chosen to discuss the subject the very illustrious Signor Giovanni Bardi, . . . and with him Signor Piero Strozzi, as being both most zealous for the true music and great lovers of such speculations as these and moreover qualified to sustain this or even a weightier argument.

Italian School: 17th Century, Study of a Prophet

Strozzi: May it please you to give me some further particulars, so that I may escape from my ignorance and also learn how to answer the practical musicians of today, who maintain that the music of the ancients was in comparison with their own a thing to be laughed at, and that the astonishment they caused with it in men's minds had no other source or origin than their coarseness and rudeness, but being proud of it, they afterwards made a great to-do over it in their books.

Bardi: Observe how bold they are, those men who laugh at the effects of a thing without knowing what it was, or what its nature and properties were, or how its effects could have been produced! What better argument do you wish, in order to convince them, than the miracles, to give them that name, that this music performed, miracles related to us by the worthiest and most famous writers, outside the profession of music, that the world has ever had?

But, leaving this to one side, let us turn a clear and reasonable example, which will be this: from what I have been able to gather, it is certain that the present manner of singing several airs together has not been in use for more than a hundred and fifty years, although I do not know that there exists an authoritative example of the modern practice that is that old or that anyone wishes to have one. And all the best practical musicians agree in saying and believing that between that time and this, music has reached the highest perfection that man can imagine, indeed since the death of Cipriano Rore [1516 1565?], a musician truly unique in this manner of counterpoint, it has rather declined than advanced. Now if in the hundred years, or a little more, that it has been practiced in this manner by people who are commonly of little or no worth, of unknown birthplace and parentage, so to speak, having no gifts of fortune, or else few, and hardly able to read, it has reached the pitch of excellence that they say, how much more astonishing and marvelous it must have been among the Greeks and Roman, where it lasted for centuries and centuries, continually in the care of the wisest, most learned, most judicious, and most wealthy men and of the bravest and most princely commanders that the world has ever had!

For all the height of excellence of the practical music of the moderns, there is not heard or seen today the slightest sign of its accomplishing what ancient music accomplished, nor do we read that it accomplished it fifty or a hundred years ago when it was not so common and familiar to men. Thus neither its novelty nor its excellence has ever had the power, with our modern musicians, of producing any of the virtuous, infinitely beneficial and comforting effects that ancient music produced. From this it is a necessary conclusion that either music or human nature has changed from its original state. But what ancient music was, and what modern music is, and how this change could come about, this I shall show at the proper time.

Strozzi: I take such pleasure in hearing these novelties which you advocate with such reasonable and living arguments, that if you are content, I shall be glad to hear all that you may wish to say further on the subject and not interfere with the order in which you have proposed to yourself to discuss the material.

Bardi: If that is your pleasure, it shall be mine as well. . . .

Bardi proceeds to explain how consonance came to be (based on the strings of the cithara) and how the rules of counterpoint began to be developed. After which he denounces them as being unfit to express any conception other than the delight of the ear and suitable only to instrumental music.

Strozzi: From what you have said thus far may it be gathered, it seems, among other important things, that the music of today is not of great value for expressing the passions of the mind by means of words, but is of value merely for the wind and stringed instruments, from which the ear, it appears, desires nothing but the sweet enjoyment of the variety of their harmonies, . . .

Bardi: Finally, I come as I promised to the treatment of the most important and principle part of music, the imitation of the conceptions that are derived from the words. And after disposing of this question I shall speak to you about the principles observed by the ancient musicians.

Our practicing contrapuntists say, or rather hold to be certain, that they have expressed the conceptions of the mind in the proper manner and have imitated the words whenever, in setting to music a sonnet, canzone, romanzo, madrigal or other poem in which there occurs a line saying, for example, "Bitter heart and savage, and cruel will," which is the first line of one of the sonnets of Petrarch, they have caused many sevenths, fourths, seconds, and major sixths, to be sung between the parts and by means of these have made a rough, harsh, and unpleasant sound in the ears of the listeners.

The sound is indeed not unlike that given by the cithara of Orpheus in the hands of Neantius, the son of Pittacus, the tyrant of the Greek island of Lesbos. . . When Neantius played upon the cithara in question, . . . he received [from his lack of skill] when he played it, condign punishment, being devoured by dogs. . .

At another time they will say that they are imitating the words when among the conceptions of these there are any meaning "to flee" or "to fly"; these they will declaim with the greatest rapidity and the least grace imaginable. In connection with words meaning "to disappear," "to swoon," "to die," or actually "to be extinct" they have made the parts break off so abruptly, that instead of inducing the passion corresponding to any of these, they have aroused laughter and at other times contempt in the listeners, who felt that they were being ridiculed. Then with words meaning "alone," "two," or "together" they have caused one lone part, or two, or all the parts together to sing with unheard-of elegance. Others, in the singing of this particular line from one of the sestinas of Petrarch: "And with the lame ox he will be pursuing Laura," have declaimed it to staggering, wavering, syncopated notes as though they had hiccups. And when, as sometimes happens, the conceptions they have had in hand made mention of the rolling of the drum, or of the sound of the trumpet or any other such instrument, they have sought to represent its sound in their music, without minding at all that they were pronouncing these words in some unheard-of manner. . . .

Another time, finding the line: "He descended into Hell, into the lap of Pluto," they have made one part of the composition descend in such a way that the singer has sounded more like someone groaning to frighten children and terrify them than like anyone singing sense. In the opposite way, finding this one: "This one aspires to the stars," in declaiming it they have ascended to a height no one shrieking from excessive pain, internal or external, has ever reached. And coming, as sometimes happens, to words meaning "weep," "laugh," "sing," "shout,""shriek," or unto "false deceits," "harsh chains," "hard bonds," "rugged mount," "unyielding rock," "cruel woman," and the like, to say nothing of their sighs, unusual forms, and so on, they have declaimed them, to color their absurd and vain designs, in manners more outlandish than those of the far-off barbarian. Unhappy men, they do not perceive that if Isocrates or Corax or any of the other famous orators had ever, in an oration, uttered two of these words in such a fashion, they would have moved their hearers to laughter and contempt and would besides this have been derided and despised by them as men foolish, abject, and worthless. And yet they wonder that the music of their times produces none of the notable effects that ancient music produced, when, quite the other way, they would have more cause for amazement if it were to produce any of them, seeing that their music is so remote from the ancient music and so unlike it as actually to be its contrary and its mortal enemy, as has been said and proved and will be proved still more, and seeing that it has no means enabling it even to think of producing such effects, let alone to obtain them. For its sole aim is to delight the ear, while that of ancient music is to induce in another the same passion that one feels oneself. No person of judgment understands the expression of the conceptions of the mind by means of words in this ridiculous manner, but in another, far removed and very different.

Strozzi: I pray you, tell me how.

Bardi: In the same way that, among many others, those two famous orators that I mentioned a little while ago expressed them, and afterwards every musician of repute. And if they wish to understand the manner it, I shall content myself with showing them how and from whom they can learn with little pain and trouble and with the greatest pleasure, and it will be thus: when they go for their amusement to the tragedies and comedies that the mummers act, let them a few times leave off their immoderate laughing, and instead be so good as to observe, when one gentleman speaks with another, in what manner he speaks, how high or low his voice is pitched, and what volume of sound, with what sorts of accents and gestures, and with what rapidity or slowness his words are uttered. Let them mark what difference obtains in all these things when one of them speaks with one of his servants, or one of these with another; let them observe the prince when he chances to be conversing with one of his subjects and vassals; when with the petitioner who is entreating his favor; how the man infuriated or excited speaks; the married woman, the girl, the mere child, the clever harlot, the lover speaking to his mistress as he seeks to persuade her to grant his wishes, the man who laments, the one who cries out, the timid man, and the man exultant with joy. From these variations of circumstance, if they observe them attentively and examine them with care, they will be able to select the norm of what is fitting for the expression of any other conception whatever that can call for their handling.

Every brute beast has the natural faculty of communicating its pleasure and its pain of body and mind, at least to those of its own species, nor was voice given to them by nature for any other purpose. And among rational animals there are some so stupid that, since they do not know, thanks to their worthlessness, how to make practical application of this faculty and how to profit by it on occasion, they believe that they are without it naturally.

When the ancient musician sang any poem whatever, he first considered very diligently the character of the person speaking: his age, his sex, with whom he was speaking, and the effect he sought to produce by this means; and these conceptions, previously clothed by the poet in chosen words suited to such a need, the musician then expressed in the tone and with the accents and gestures, the quantity and quality of sound, and the rhythm appropriate to that action and to such a person. For this reason we read of Timotheus, who in the opinion of Suidas was a player of the aulos and not of the cithara, that when he roused the great Alexander with the difficult mode of Minerva to combat with the armies of his foes, not only did the circumstances mentioned reveal themselves in the rhythms, the words, and the conceptions of the entire song in conformity with his desire, but in my opinion at least, his habit, the aspect of his countenance, and each particular gesture and member must have shown on this occasion that he was burning with desire to fight, to overcome, and to conquer the enemy, For this reason Alexander was forced to cry out for his arms and to say that this should be the song of kings. And rightly, for provided the impediments have been removed, if the musician has not the power to direct the minds of his listeners to their benefit, his science and knowledge are to be reputed null and vain, since the art of music was instituted and numbered among the liberal arts for no other purpose.

from Strunk, Source Readings in Music History 302 - 322.

One of the earliest attempts at a new style of composition based on Galilei's proposals was undertaken by the composer Jacopo Peri, in collaboration with the librettist Ottavio Rinuccini,. The two created Dafne, an intermezzo for a wedding celebration in 1594, and later Euridice in 1600. The following, taken from Rinuccini's dedication to Euridice, tells what they were trying to get at.

Ottavio Rinuccini: from Dedication to Euridice (1600)

To the most Christian Maria Medici, Queen of France and of Navarre.

It has been the opinion of many, most Christian Queen, that the ancient Greeks and Romans, in representing their tragedies upon the stage, sang them throughout. But until now this noble manner of recitation has been neither revived nor (to my knowledge) even attempted by anyone, and I used to believe this was due to the imperfection of the modern music, by far inferior to the ancient. But the opinion thus formed was wholly driven from my mind by Messer Jacopo Peri, who, hearing of the intention of Signor Jacopo Corsi and myself, set to music with so much grace the fable of "Dafne" (which I had written solely to make a simple trial of what the music of our age could do) that it gave pleasure beyond belief to the few who heard it.. . .

May your Majesty recognize in these my labors, small though they be, the humble devotion of my mind to Your Majesty and live long in happiness to receive from God each day greater graces and greater favors.

Florence, October 4, 1600.
Your Majesty's most humble servant,
Ottavio Rinuccini

from Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York, 1950) 367-368.

Jacobo Peri, also composed music to Rinuccini's libretto for Euridice. In the foreward to the score of Euridice, Peri discusses the ways that the music reflected the declamation of speech.

Jacopo Peri (1561-1633)
Jacopo Peri: from Foreward to Euridice (1601)

Seeing that dramatic poetry was concerned and that it was therefore necessary to imitate speech in song (and surely no one ever spoke in song), I judged that the ancient Greeks and Romans (who in the opinion of many sang their tragedies throughout in representing them upon the stage) had used a harmony surpassing that of ordinary speech but falling so far below the melody of song as to take an intermediate form. And this is why we find their poems admitting the iambic verse, a form less elevated than the hexameter but said to be advanced beyond the confines of familiar conversation. For this reason, discarding every other manner of singing hitherto heard, I devoted myself wholly to seeking out the kind of imitation necessary for these poems. And I considered that the kind of speech that the ancients assigned to singing and that they called "diastematica" (that is sustained or suspended) could in part be hastened and made to take an intermediate course, lying between the slow and suspended movements of song and the swift and rapid movements of speech, and that it could be adapted to my purpose (as they adapted it in reading poems and heroic verses) and made to approach that other kind of speech which they called "continuata," a thing our moderns have already accomplished in their compositions, although perhaps for another purpose.

I knew likewise that in our speech some words are so intoned that harmony can be based upon them and that in the course of speaking it passes through many others that are not so intoned until it returns to another that will bear a progression to a fresh consonance. And having in mind those inflections and accents that serve us in our grief, in our joy, and in similar states, I caused the bass to move in time to these, either more or less, following the passions, and I held it firm throughout the false and true proportions [consonances and dissonances] until, running through various notes, the voice of the speaker came to a word that, being intoned in familiar speech, opened the way to a fresh harmony. And this not only in order that the flow of the discourse might not distress the ear (as though stumbling among the repeated notes that it encountered because of the rapid succession of the consonances) and in order that it might not seem in a way to dance to the movement of the bass (especially where the subject was sad or grave, more cheerful subjects naturally calling for more rapid movements), but also because the use of false proportions would either diminish or offset whatever advantage it brought us, because of the necessity of intoning every note, which the ancient music may perhaps have had less need of doing.

And therefore, just as I should not venture to affirm that this is the manner of singing used in the fables of the Greeks and Romans, so I have come to believe that it is the only one our music can give us to be adapted to our speech.

from Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York, 1950) 374 - 375.


All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
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